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"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." – Dr. Albert Bartlett Dr. Bartlett is professor emeritus at University of Colorado (Boulder).
His presentations are quite a good place to start thinking about energy and environmental issues (or many others for that matter). Voters, students, legislators and business leaders could use the refresher!
What follows on this site is simply a series of primers on various topics and (rather long) lists of general reference material for those wanting some background on energy issues specifically. The general categories are:
NOTE: These lists are far from exhaustive, but should provide an introduction to the broad range of concepts inherit in the topic. It should also allow the complete novice to gain a firm grounding in the topics, and point those with significant understanding to some new ideas.
Certainly, a wide range of views are represented in the materials on this site. It is not this site's intention to advocate a position, per se, but simply to lay out the debate (minus the incredible amount of obfuscation inherit in the topic) and allow the reader to explore and learn more if they so choose.
We start with one of the fundamental - though often over-looked - principals in any discussion on energy...'net energy'.
This is a CRUCIAL thing to understand when thinking of all matters to do with energy. This is effectively the net energy gain from any energy source. For every one unit of energy expended, how many units back from energy does one get?
If a coyote has to burn 500 calories to catch, eat and digest a rabbit, but the rabbit only contains 450 calories worth of energy, the coyote will end up very hungry, and eventually very dead unless it either finds a more efficient way to catch, eat and digest the rabbit...or a different source of food that contains more net energy.
In the beginning of the oil era, oil (and coal before it) had extraordinary returns on energy. Some estimates put the EROEI at 100-1, meaning that for every unit of energy spent finding, drilling for and producing a unit of oil, 100 times the amount of energy was gained. Never in history has such an incredible - ONE OFF - source of energy been discovered. That the human population increased six-fold with the advent of large-scale exploitation of high-EROEI fossil fuels is not a coincidence.
Massively high EROEI provide an incredible ability to do more work than had ever been imagineable. The problem is that the oil that shoots up out of the ground under its own pressure is becoming less common; now we have to pump it out of the ground, often out at sea, using a huge amount of the 'net energy' contained in it.
Tar sands, oil shale, heavy crude, coal-to-liquids and certainly many biofuels, especially US corn-derived ethanol, have VERY low EROEIs. Official industry / advocate positions for these 'fuels of the future' even admit that the returns are on the order of magnitude of 1.3 / 1 versus, for example, wind energy at 18 / 1. So if you produce the equivalent of 100 barrels of the stuff, you've used around 77 to make it!
In fact, the EROEIs are so low, and measuring the precise net energy gain through the whole life-cycle of the fuel can be so complex, that many argue that they actually they have a NEGATIVE EROEI. But to avoid polemicism, take their proponents at their word and accept the 'high-case' return of 1.3 / 1. It's still sobering.
To quote from Wikipedia, whose discussion of EROEI is quite good:
"it doesn't matter to human society how much oil is underground, it matters how much can be raised to the surface with a EROEI above one. At the point it takes more than a barrel of oil to raise a barrel of oil to the surface and refine it, EROEI becomes less than one. If oil was the only energy source, then even if the price rises to a billion dollars per barrel, it would not be economical to continue. As oil is not the only source of energy, this is a simplified argument, but its implications for society and civilization are profound. EROEI is slowly becoming recognized as the ratio which underlies the very possibility of maintaining a civilization or a life form."